The American Interest recently published a series of three essays, commissioned by the Reagan Institute, on the legacy of Ronald Reagan’s famous 1982 Westminster speech on democracy promotion. Last week, we gathered the three authors—Carl Gershman of the National Endowment for Democracy, Daniel Twining of the International Republican Institute, and Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security—to discuss the speech’s lessons for today with Susan B. Glasser of the New Yorker and TAI contributing editor David J. Kramer. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
David J. Kramer: What was the source of Reagan’s optimism? What was his inspiration for believing that democracy would prevail over communism and authoritarianism?
Daniel Twining: He was very alive to the idea that these were not Western principles. He called it “cultural condescension” to think that only Europeans and Americans aspired to democratic freedoms and that the rest of the world was happily resigned to despotism. A lot of Europeans at the time thought he was quite naive and unworldly, but in fact it was that very American form of optimism that gave him the inspiration that our ideals are universal. When you read the Westminster speech, he makes very clear that there are no cultural or geographic exceptions, that this is something innate to the human condition and the God-given dignity of men and women.
DJK: Carl, you have described how the situation in 1982 could have offered cause for despair. And yet Reagan saw through any reason for pessimism and reached for optimism.
Carl Gershman: Well, there were a lot of factors that wouldn’t have led to optimism. Carter had just a couple of years before talked about a malaise, the “crisis of confidence.” You had the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the crackdown in Poland—martial law was imposed just six months earlier—and you even had Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the bicentennial of 1976 saying democracy was where the world was, not where the world was going. But when Reagan got elected, it was really bipartisan; you had the AFL-CIO and a lot of people who really wanted to revive American engagement in the world. Reagan was pushing in that direction.
There was also a feeling, which he articulated terrifically in the speech, that there was a crisis of communism. He saw the contradiction between a modernizing world economy and a political system that could not allow the Soviet Union to modernize. He predicted the downfall, but he also saw, quite remarkably, a democratic revolution emerging. Within just a few years, the third wave of democratization crested, and you had a doubling of the number of democracies in the world. And it’s not just that he saw it happening; he helped make it happen. Obviously he was not alone—Pope John Paul II played a very important role in this, and the Solidarity movement, and the Soviet dissident movement—but he pushed in the right direction.
DJK: Let me pick up on that point about the malaise of the Carter era. We also still had the hangover effects of Vietnam and the Iranian hostage-taking. Richard, to what extent do you think Reagan saw the goodness of America and the cause of democracy as an antidote to what the country had been going through?
Richard Fontaine: Well, I would add one more set of factors to your list, and that’s the economy. In 1982, the U.S. gross domestic product contracted by 2.5 percent. Unemployment was the highest it had been since the Great Depression. Interest rates were above 21 percent, and the United States was actually doing pretty well compared to other industrialized democracies like Canada and the United Kingdom.
So, to bet on democracy and freedom as opposed to autocracy and communism was pretty bold. I think it was both Reagan’s optimism about the universal attractiveness of democratic and liberal values, but also his clear-eyedness about the internal contradictions of the communist system, that allowed him to step back from the situation at hand in order to see the long view with clarity.
Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were quite different people, to state the obvious, but Carter had a saying that America did not invent human rights, human rights invented America. I think that Reagan would have agreed with that. This was not something to be exported from the United States, it was not a politically convenient narrative or set of talking points, but rather intrinsic to the blessings that the United States has enjoyed and therefore intrinsic to the human spirit.
Susan B. Glasser: Carl, you had an interesting observation that Reagan’s speech was not just rhetoric but involved the creation of an infrastructure and coherent plan around democracy promotion. Do you think that America’s institutionalized democracy promotion community, as it exists today, is something that Reagan would recognize?
CG: Well, certainly when he spoke, nothing really existed. You had the German party foundations, but his speech was the founding document for everything that was done thereafter. And there is a vision in the speech of how this work should be done. He makes the point, repeatedly, that it’s the people on the ground themselves who want freedom and democracy. Our job is to help; it’s not to do it for them. That’s been the philosophy of the National Endowment for Democracy since the very beginning.
I think as the field grew and became bureaucratized, you did have the tendency for big development agencies and governments to take a top-down approach. But the speech itself contains this brilliant concept that the only reason this work can succeed is because people want freedom and they’re fighting for it. And the question then is, how can you properly be of assistance without imposing your own priorities on them, how do you empower them to achieve their own vision. That’s what it’s all about.
DJK: How indispensable was the U.S. role in supporting democracy, perceived in 1982, and how indispensable is it today?
DT: The world expects America to lead on democracy and human rights issues and the world is surprised when we don’t. And that surprise doesn’t necessarily relate to which party is in power, or who happens to be President, because our record will always be imperfect in an imperfect world. But one thing I’ve certainly found in this line of work is that it feels naturally right to Americans, because this is part of our own founding story.
It doesn’t make sense that we would want to cast off the bonds of tyranny in America, but we would be agnostic about the wishes of anyone else in the world to do that. Those things actually go together. Small-d democrats around the world want our help, our alliance, our association. As Carl said, they want to do it themselves—it’s for them, it’s not for us. But they do sometimes need help because they are operating in systems where there is no level playing field, and there is no free political competition.
But the other thing I have found, and it’s another Reagan insight, is that authoritarians also expect the Americans to stand up for our values and what we believe in. And they are often surprised when we don’t. Bad actors, from the Middle East to China to Russia, don’t expect America to be like them. They don’t think of America as just another great power. And that’s what still gives a lot of hope and inspiration to their publics.
SBG: Let’s address the elephant in the room. How can we still talk this way in the age of Donald Trump? We have a President of the United States who calls the media enemies of the people, who not only admires dictators and strongmen but even has favorite dictators, whom he calls that way and praises. How can American democracy promotion have any credibility in the future?
CG: You’re correct about the President, but the Congress has taken a very different, bipartisan approach. The work continues. Part of the legacy of Reagan is that there are institutions that continue this work despite what the particular person who’s in charge right now might be saying. My experience is that people around the world don’t say, “Well, look, you don’t have any credibility because what you’re doing is inconsistent with what we’re hearing from the White House.” Quite the contrary. They want to be reassured that there still is a strong body of support in the United States for these values. And there is, and so I think what we do has never been more needed, has never been more important, and frankly, has never been more welcomed by the people that we work with.
RF: U.S. foreign policy and its support for democracy and freedom has always been contradictory. In the 1960s, the United States touted itself in the third world as a beacon for democracy and freedom against communism. But African-Americans couldn’t vote in the South in large numbers. Not that many years ago, we condemned torture around the world while the CIA was running black sites. If you’re waiting around for internal consistency between our own practice and what we would like to see obtain at home and abroad, you’ll be waiting forever.
Just because we are an imperfect democracy, though, doesn’t mean that we would get out of the business of supporting democracies abroad or trying to perfect our democracy at home. We just have to acknowledge that contradictions are going to exist and try to deal with whatever hits to credibility occur because of it.
DT: People in Hong Kong aren’t in the streets because of America. People in Venezuela aren’t in the streets because of who is or isn’t President in America. In Algeria, in Sudan, all of these movements around the world are about these people’s aspirations in their own countries. And it’s slightly American of us to think that it always has to be all about us.
SBG: That is an important point. There’s been a fascinating rise of protest movements across the world in places like Egypt, Russia, and Hong Kong. Carl, you had a fascinating statistic that more than 10 percent of the world’s governments have had corruption-related changes of governments in the last five years. And the United States has not been leading in any of those cases, or possibly has been unconstructive.
CG: That’s true, Susan. I think there’s a tension in the world today between what Larry Diamond calls the “democratic recession”—the rise of illiberalism and populism and nationalism as well as resurgent authoritarianism and backsliding in democratic countries in central Europe and elsewhere—and the astounding and unexpected democratic resilience in the places you mentioned. And I think that relates to what Reagan was talking about, that authoritarians are inherently vulnerable because they have no political legitimacy. Democratic countries have a certain resilience because people want freedom and democracy.
So this is going to be a battle. The critical test is, first of all, can these struggles around the world re-ignite a spirit of democracy in our own country where people do get cynical and pessimistic? And, second, can we find a way to support these struggles that are taking place?
DJK: Could this time be looked back upon as a real missed opportunity? Today there’s still programmatic support for democracy promotion, but there is no Westminster speech on the horizon.
DT: I think we could probably itemize a whole set of historical cases where we wish presidents had risen to the moment. And the moment can be quite muddled and unclear. I think Obama missed a big opportunity in Iran with the Green Revolution, for instance.
But in terms of missed opportunities, it does strike me that authoritarian great powers like Russia and China are actually going on offense in exporting authoritarian values. The Russians and the Chinese are not simply trying to strengthen dictatorship in their own countries. The Kremlin and the CCP are very much about subverting, assaulting, and weakening open societies. And that takes different forms: disinformation, Belt & Road, corruption, whatever the case may be.
We in the democracies are not having a serious enough conversation about defending our own democratic institutions, particularly our electoral integrity and our free speech on social media. The bad actors are on offense and it does not feel like we are. We are unsure of ourselves, we are polarized and divided. And the authoritarian competitors are actually quite clear about their purpose, which is to disrupt and weaken the open, free, democratic world the West built.
RF: I think the missed opportunity stems from not seeing that this contest of systems is intrinsic to the broader competition, which is now widely acknowledged by the current Administration and by the foreign policy establishment. If you look at the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy, they say that China and Russia seek to make a world safe for their particular brands of autocracy, and that there’s a competition of systems going on.
I think that’s right, and I think most in the foreign policy establishment would also say that’s right. So what’s our response? Our response has not been framed in terms of democracy promotion being intrinsic to this geopolitical competition as opposed to something that we kind of do here and there when it doesn’t get in the way of our other interests—like tight relations with Egypt or the Philippines or Saudi Arabia.
CG: When Reagan spoke, he really invoked the idea of a battle of ideas, an ideological competition, a competition of systems. And I think a lot of people came to the conclusion after the Cold War that this battle had ended—in other words, that democracy was no longer being contested. Now, on the 30th anniversary of these historic events, many people are saying that it wasn’t the end of history, but it took a long time to realize that. The real question now is, does authoritarianism itself represent a coherent competitor to the democratic idea?
There is a kind of Authoritarian International; they do cooperate with each other in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other structures, like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. And then recently in Sudan, for instance, Russia went in along with the Gulf States and Egypt to try to stop the struggle for democracy. So there is a competition that’s taking place today. It doesn’t have the same coherence, it’s not as bilateral as it was during the Cold War, but it does exist, and we have to realize that. We don’t have that consensus yet.
SBG: Is the threat to American democracy more of an external threat, or one from within? We have a President, again, who appears to be hostile to many of the basic building blocks of democracy. He represents a part of our society, however large. Polarization in America is not externally imposed by the Russians, although they seek to widen our divisions.
CG: In a way, Susan, this is what’s changed. Back during the Cold War we saw the threat as entirely external, but I don’t think anyone today does. Our whole information system has changed where you have a breakdown, a kind of echo chamber effect, where people get information from just the sources that they agree with. And we’re losing civility. We’re losing an ability to understand what unites us because everything we’re looking at is what divides us. And this, I think, is inherent in a period of globalization when people feel like their identities are being threatened. People who support liberal democratic values have to come to terms with this. And we have to find a way of fighting illiberal nationalism with a kind of civic patriotism that can respond to people’s quest for identity and being part of a community without allowing demagogues to dominate that issue of identity.
RF: I might answer that a little more starkly. If you step back from the overall project of supporting democracy in the world, then of course, the protection of our own democracy from external manipulation is vital. And tending to the health of our democracy might be more vital still. This is not American democracy’s finest modern moment. The President in the name of efficacy often wants to run roughshod over democratic institutions and norms. Congress has been alternating between being quiescent and combative. I don’t think it’s the case that we have to perfect ourselves in order to support democracy abroad, but I do think it’s the case that if we’re going to support democracy abroad, we need to attend to our democracy at home.
DT: We do need to consider, too, that open societies have been buffeted by a tremendous set of forces over the last ten years. A global financial crisis that was as bad as anything that’s happened since the Great Depression; the entry of 2 billion new workers into the global economy from China, India, and the rest of the rising world; automation, which has created huge middle-class gaps in terms of productive employment; the extraordinary transformations of information technology, which are highly dislocating in a democratic society and have helped give rise to fringe voices; and finally migration.
There are more refugees in the world today than at any time since 1945. And guess where most of those people want to go? They want to get to the rich, democratic, open societies that include the United States and our European allies. All of these forces have contributed in large part to the rise of nationalism and populism, and none of them are unique to the United States.
DJK: In Reagan’s speech, he was obviously very prescient in seeing that the Soviet system was not sustainable. If you look at the landscape today around the world, which system would you say is most vulnerable?
DT: One for me is Egypt. If you were designing a formula for a country to explode, it would look like what El-Sisi is doing in Egypt—with repression worse than anything under Mubarak, with a huge demographic boom on top of very weak economic performance, on top of climate and other pressures.
I would also mention Russia. Everyone likes to imagine that Russia has always been czarist and always will be. But a recent poll I saw said that 60 percent of Russians seek “decisive change” in their country. What that means in Russia, even if they can’t always say it directly, is that they want a different kind of leadership in a different kind of system. And Putin actually is aware of this. He’s much less confident than, say, the Chinese leadership is. That doesn’t mean that everything’s going to become Jeffersonian, but I can imagine us being surprised by developments in Egypt and Russia over the next 5 to 10 years.
CG: In the municipal elections that took place in Russia two months ago, the candidates for Putin’s party ran as independents because the United Russia brand was considered so toxic. That’s indicative of what you’re talking about. I don’t think you can take the stability of the Russian system for granted.
In the case of China, you see the declining economy, the death of the ideology, corruption, CCP conflicts within the leadership as Xi Jinping concentrates power—there’s more vulnerability there. And China has entered the economic zone where countries like South Korea and others have transitioned to democracy. So I think Xi Jinping is extremely nervous.
And then of course you have the protests in Iran, you have what’s happening in Venezuela. I think authoritarian countries are more inherently vulnerable than democracies. Democracies have the capacity to self-correct. We’re going through a crisis right now, but I think people are awakening to the fact that you can’t take democracy for granted. You have to protect it.
RF: I would just add that if you look across the wider Middle East, most of the forces that gave rise to the Arab Spring are still there, and the same pre-Arab Spring formula is still largely in place, which is to say you keep a lid on discontent by trying to create as many jobs as you can. You have a very heavy-handed security state and a lack of democracy that keeps the popular will down. Egypt is a perfect example, but there are others as well. The long-term sustainability of that model has been tested once and I can’t believe it won’t be tested again.
SBG: One final thought: We still tend to be talking in Reagan’s terms about a struggle between freedom and democracy on the one hand, and autocracy and tyranny on the other. But listening to a lot of the specific examples we’ve mentioned, I wonder if it’s now more about corruption and transparency. Does the Reagan frame of freedom versus tyranny still apply today, or is it that rhyming version of corruption versus openness?
RF: I totally agree with you. And if you look at Reagan’s Westminster speech, he emphasizes the very traditional components of what we think of as democracy: free speech and periodic free elections, free trade unions, the right to assemble, and all of these other important things. But there’s a huge rule of law component that seems really absent in many of the countries where the most vigorous protests are occurring. And that is sometimes related to the ability to choose one’s own leaders, but it also reflects great frustration about the absence of rule of law, impunity, and corruption. And so in my mind, the project of support for democracy abroad has to take into account the anti-corruption aspect as much as it does the traditional components like election monitoring and polling.
CG: We live in a much different world today than when Reagan spoke. You have a much higher level of consciousness because of the spread of information and the Internet. And so, yes, you’re going to have demands that governments actually deliver for the people and don’t steal from them. All over the world, these regimes steal because that’s what a lot of them have done for centuries. Our job is to support forces at the bottom, civil society and free media and others, that can increase this pressure to hold governments accountable and to demand honesty and the rule of law.
DT: One way to think about authoritarianism today is really as a business model, right? What Putin and the Kremlin oligarchs are doing is not necessarily running a political system. They are running an extractive state for a very small oligarchic elite. And as Carl alluded to, what really agitates people all over the world irrespective of their culture, geography, or outlook is outrage at public officials stealing from the public purse. The fact that Putin is one of the richest people in the world actually gets a lot of traction when Russian opposition leaders highlight that. There’s a lot more to do here, but the way to tackle corruption as a business model is actually to improve democratic transparency and accountability.
CG: And pressure from below.
DT: Yes, and that includes civic watchdogs and investigative journalists.
DJK: How do you think about China in reference to fragility and possible change?
DT: Hong Kong is particularly interesting in this regard. Remember this is the richest part of China, with Swiss-like levels of per capita income. And prosperity is not enough for them. They want openness and accountability and political choice. People always said the Chinese have developed this new system where as long as you put money in people’s pockets and develop some broad-based prosperity, that’s enough. And there are very few Hong Kongers who actually think that’s enough. I think they are the tip of the spear for this debate inside greater China.